More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

Putting the best face forward at Twitter.

tdWhen business results look disappointing, one can certainly sympathize with the efforts of company management to explain it away in the most innocuous of terms.

This may be what’s behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s description of his company’s 2016 performance as “transformative” – whatever that means.

Falling short of industry analysts’ forecasts yet again, Twitter experienced a revenue increase of only about 1% year-over-year during 2016.

Monthly active users didn’t look much better either, with the total number barely budging.

While I have no actual proof, one explanation of tepid active user growth may be that Twitter became the de facto “place for politics” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election — which didn’t actually end in November and continues apace even today.

Simply put, for many people, politics isn’t their cup of tea — certainly not on a 24/7/365 diet, ad nauseum.

Quite telling, too, was the fact that advertising revenue showed an absolute decline during the 4th Quarter, dropping below $640 million for the period.

Even more disturbing for investors, the company’s explanation about the steps Twitter is taking to address its performance shortfalls smacks of vacuousness, to wit this statement from CEO Dorsey:

“While revenue growth continues to lag audience growth, we are applying the same focused approach that drove audience growth to our revenue product portfolio, focusing on our strengths and the real-time nature of our service.”

“This will take time, but we’re moving fast to show results,” Dorsey continued, rather unconvincingly.

One bright spot in the otherwise disappointing company results is that revenues from international operations – about 39% of total overall revenues – climbed ~12% during the year, as compared to a ~5% revenue drop domestically.

Overall however, industry watchers are predicting more in the way of bad rather than good news in 2017. Principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson at digital media market research firm eMarketer put it this way:

“Twitter is losing traction fast. It is starting to shed once-promising products such as Vine, and [to] sell off parts of its business such as its Fabric app development platform.  At the same time, some surveys indicate that Twitter is becoming less integral to advertisers’ spending plans.  That doesn’t bode well for future ad revenue growth.”

With a prognosis like that, can the next big drop in Twitter’s share price be far behind?

What do you think?

Clickthrough rates on web banner advertising actually rise! (But they’re still subterranean.)

bbThe headlines last week were near-breathless, announcing that North American clickthrough rates for web banner advertising are rising!

And that’s true on the face of it: According to a new analysis by advertising management company Sizmek based on billions of online ad impressions, the average engagement (clickthrough) rate on a standard banner ad has actually increased.

It’s risen all the way up to 0.14%.

It means that for a standard banner ad, for every 1,000 times it’s served, 1.4 engagements happen.

Here’s what that also means: Don’t bank your business success on online display advertising.

Of course, there are more ways to advertise online than by using standard banner ads. So-called “rich media” ads – ones that incorporate animation and/or sound – perform substantially better.

But it’s all relative, because “substantially better” in this case means that in North America, achieving an average of 2.1 engagements for every 1,000 times a rich media ad is served.

The situation is even worse than these figures imply, actually. When one considers the incidences when viewers accidentally click through on an ad thanks to an errant mouse or a fat finger, even “one out of a thousand” for engagement isn’t really correct.

The Sizmek analysis found that banner ads in certain industries perform better than those in others. Among the “winners” (if one could characterize it that way) are electronic products, apparel, and other retail advertising.

At the bottom?  Automotive, jobs and careers and, ironically, tech and internet advertising.

A glimmer of hope in this continuing saga of hopeless news is in-stream video which, according to the Sizmek study, is generating far higher engagement levels of 1.5% or greater, depending on the degree of interactivity.

But I can’t help but wonder: As the novelty of these newer ad innovations inevitably wears off, won’t we see the same phenomenon occurring over time wherein audiences will become as “blind” to these ads as they are to the standard banner ad today?

As the years roll by and the effectiveness of online banner advertising continues to underwhelm in overwhelming ways, the “drive towards zero” seems to be the relentless theme. I seriously doubt we’re going to see a reversal of that.

The ad blocking phenomenon: It’s all about human nature.

noadThe rapid rise in consumer adoption of ad blocking software is threatening the traditional advertising model for publishers. For some, it seems like a topsy-turvy world where none of the old assumptions or the old rules apply.

But author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss reminds us that the consumer behaviors we are witnesses are as old as the hills.

In a recent MediaPost column titled “Why Our Brains Are Blocking Ads,” Hotchkiss points out that the environment for online ads is vastly different from the environment where traditional advertising flourished for decades – primarily in magazines, newspapers and television.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

He notes that in the past, the majority of people’s interaction with advertising was done while our brains were in “idling” mode – meaning that they had no specific task at hand. Instead, people were looking for something to capture their attention within a TV program, a newspaper or magazine article.

Hotchkiss contends that in such an environment, the brain is in an “accepting” state and thus is more open to advertising messages:

“We were looking for something interesting, we were primed to be in a positive frame of mind, and our brains could easily handle the contextual switches required to consider an ad and its message.”

Contrast this to the delivery of most digital advertising in today’s world, which is happening when people are in more of a “foraging” mode – involved in a task to find information and answers with our attention focused on that task.

In such an environment, advertising isn’t only a distraction; often, it’s a source of frustration. As Hotchkiss notes:

“The reason we’re blocking [digital] ads is that in the context those ads are being delivered, irrelevant ads are – quite literally – painful. Even relevant ads have a very high threshold to get over.”

Hotchkiss concludes that the rapid rise of ad blocking adoption isn’t about the technology per se.  It has to do with the hardwiring of our brains.  New technologies haven’t caused fundamental changes in human behavior – they’ve simply enabled new behaviors that weren’t an option before.

adbAs is becoming increasingly obvious, the implications for the advertising business are huge:  Ad blocking software is projected to lower digital ad revenues by more than $40 billion in 2016 alone, according to estimates by digital data research firm eMarketer.

Looking back on it, actually it seems like it was all so inevitable.

Ad fraud: It’s worse than you think.

It isn’t so much the size of the problem, but rather its implications.

affaA recently published report by White Ops, a digital advertising security and fraud detection company, reveals that the source of most online ad fraud in the United States isn’t large data centers, but rather millions of infected browsers in devices owned by people like you and me.

This is an important finding, because when bots run in browsers, they appear as “real people” to most advertising analytics and many fraud detection systems.

As a result, they are more difficult to detect and much harder to stop.

These fraudulent bots that look like “people” visit publishers, which serve ads to them and collect revenues.

faaf

Of course, once detected, the value of these “bot-bound” ads plummets in the bidding markets.  But is it really a self-correcting problem?   Hardly.

The challenge is that even as those browsers are being detected and rejected as the source of fraudulent traffic, new browsers are being infected and attracting top-dollar ad revenue just as quickly.

It may be that only 3% of all browsers account for well over half of the entire fraud activity by dollar volume … but that 3% is changing all the time.

Even worse, White Ops reports that access to these infected browsers is happening on a “black market” of sorts, where one can buy the right to direct a browser-resident bot to visit a website and generate fraudulent revenues.

… to the tune of billions of dollars every year.  According to ad traffic platform developer eZanga, advertisers are wasting more than $6 billion every year in fraudulent advertising spending.  For some advertisers involved in programmatic buying, fake impressions and clicks represent a majority of their revenue outlay — even as much as 70%.

The solution to this mess in online advertising is hard to see. It isn’t something as “simple and elegant” as blacklisting fake sites, because the fraudsters are dynamically building websites from stolen content, creating (and deleting) hundreds of them every minute.

They’ve taken the very attributes of the worldwide web which make it so easy and useful … and have thrown them back in our faces.

Virus protection software? To these fraudsters, it’s a joke.  Most anti-virus resources cannot even hope to keep pace.  Indeed, some of them have been hacked themselves – their code stolen and made available on the so-called “deep web.”  Is it any wonder that so many Internet-connected devices – from smartphones to home automation systems – contain weaknesses that make them subject to attack?

The problems would go away almost overnight if all infected devices were cut off from the Internet. But we all know that this is an impossibility; no one is going to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It might help if more people in the ad industry would be willing to admit that there is a big problem, as well as to be more amenable to involve federal law enforcement in attacking it.  But I’m not sure even that would make all that much difference.

There’s no doubt we’ve built a Frankenstein-like monster.  But it’s one we love as well as hate.  Good luck squaring that circle!

Digital display advertising: (Still) looking like the weakest online promo tactic.

untitledI’ve blogged before about the lack of engagement with online banner advertising, and as time goes on … the picture doesn’t change much at all.

When you break it down, online banner advertising is a bust on several levels:

 

  • As of the most recent stats, clickthrough rates on online banner advertising are running about 0.08%. That translates to fewer than one click for every 1,000 times the ad is served.

 

  • Based on current pricing for online banner ads, that one click might be costing anywhere from $5 to $10 (and it might have even been an accidental click).

 

Despite these “inconvenient truths,” nearly two-thirds of digital ad spending continues to go to online banner advertising based on a “cost per impression” pricing model. Why?

One answer is that it’s an easy way to advertise a product or service. Simply supply ad creative to the publisher and let it be served online.

Another may be that advertisers consider banner advertising to be a basic component of any promotional campaign: prepare a mix of direct marketing, some search engine marketing, some print advertising and some digital display advertising, and you’re off to the races.

A third reason — related to the one above and I suspect one big reason why so much digital display advertising persists in the B-to-B realm in particular — is that publishers who offer a suite of promo tactics as part of a specially priced integrated program always throw in digital display advertising as part of the mix. It becomes the default option for advertisers as they approve bundled programs and the discount rates that come along with them.

Here’s a suggestion for advertisers going forward: Push back a bit and ask publishers to come up with alternative program options that don’t include digital display advertising.  The revised program might not look as promising at first blush, but then remember the stats above and you may well see the attributes of the alternative program in a more positive light.

Ad blocking goes big-time.

Adblock-PlusA new milestone of sorts has been reached in the ad blocking realm. Adblock Plus, the leading ad blocking tool, has just announced that it’s just passed the 100 million marker in active installations.

An earlier milestone – 500 million downloads – was reached at the beginning of this year. That means the active user base has now doubled in less than half a year.

If these figures are accurate – and there’s little reason to think that they aren’t – it’s a pretty big deal. No longer is ad blocking an exotic functionality that’s the exclusive preserve of techies or other geeky subgroups.  It’s gone majorly mainstream.

What’s driving the ad blocking business is the ubiquity of online advertising. For many viewers, it’s nothing short of intolerable:  obtrusive, irritating, and sometimes creepy (hello, retargeting).

So once a well-functioning and reputable tool like Adblock came along, it was only a matter of time before it would take on “snowball-rolling-down-a-mountainside” proportions.

AdBlock Plus promises “annoyance-free web surfing.”  But as with most any innovation, there are one or two hitches. For Adblock Plus, it’s something called “Acceptable Ads.”

untitled“What’s that?” you might ask. It’s a white-list program that allows certain advertisers through Adblock’s screen.  The company receives a cut of publishers’ revenues through that program.

Fundamentally, it’s how Adblock Plus makes money. But it’s also how advertisers can do an end-run around the very service Adblock provides.

AdBlock goes to great pains to “explain” its rationale and why the Acceptable Ads program makes sense for everyone.

But it isn’t difficult to see where this might end up.  Larger advertisers will see fit to exempt themselves from ad blocking by paying for the privilege of their ads being served.

Which gets us right back to where we were with advertising in the first place, doesn’t it? Pay to play.

What’s old is new again, I guess. And meanwhile, the online ads just keep coming …